If your phone has ever died on your way home from an unfamiliar part of town, you probably know how good or bad your sense of direction is. Maybe it took you twice the amount of time to get home without your GPS, or maybe it took half. No matter how long it took, you made it home eventually, and maybe even invested in a car charger.
But did you ever wonder why it took you so damn long, or stressed you out so much? Or—if you're more fortunate—how you managed to find a shortcut that got you home in half the time you would have with Waze? The answer is that our sense of direction—or “wayfinding” abilities—derive from a complex web of interactions between our brains, senses, genes, and environment.
“Sense of direction isn’t really a sense at all, because it actually involves the use of multiple senses,” says Mary Hegarty, the principal investigator at the Hegarty Spatial Thinking Lab at University of California Santa Barbara. Many people rely heavily on sight to get where we need to go, but we also use senses that aren’t part of our culture’s primary five—like proprioception, our sense of where we are in relation to our surroundings, and vestibular feedback, our sense of spatial orientation and balance.
There are cognitive factors, too, Hegarty says. The amount of anxiety you feel when your phone dies and you’re in the middle of nowhere probably has an impact. Confidence and self-perception could play a role, too—like if a parent or partner has (even jokingly) told you that you couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag. On top of that, there are neurological, genetic, and other environmental factors to consider.
“The challenge is figuring out how exactly people perform this complex task, what the underlying neural mechanisms and perceptual and cognitive processes are that support it, and how we can predict and support the processes to mitigate failures,” says Tad Brunye, a senior cognitive scientist at the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Investigations into the neurological roots of wayfinding abilities have yielded compelling results, one of the most significant being the 2014 Nobel Prize winning discovery of “place cells.” Neuroscientists say place cells are located in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory and believed to be most closely involved in sense of direction.
There are four known types of navigation-related neurons: grid cells, border cells, place cells, and head direction cells. According to Brunye, recent research has shown that sense of direction among rats arises from interactions between these various kinds of navigation cells. But he says it remains “unclear how these results might translate to human sense of direction.”
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And there appear to be gender differences in wayfinding abilities as well. In 2015, a widely publicized study suggested that men have a better sense of direction than women. The men in the study, which involved navigating through a 3D maze in a virtual environment, took more shortcuts and utilized cardinal directions—north, east, south, and west—ultimately outperforming their female counterparts.
But Carol Lawton, a professor of psychology and researcher at Purdue University Fort Wayne, says that the gender differences that have been found are attributable not to inherent skill or ability, but to differences in navigation styles across gender, and how accommodating tests are to these differences.
According to Lawton, who has authored one of the most widely-cited studies of gender differences in spatial abilities and wayfinding, men are more likely to rely on cardinal directions and distance measurements, while women are more likely to rely on landmarks at which to make a turn, for instance. So if a virtual environment used in a test doesn’t include landmarks (like a maze) or requires participants to rely primarily on cardinal directions, it’s not surprising that men would do better.
“It should be noted that many studies do not find gender differences in wayfinding performance and that it is only in the absence of local landmarks,” Lawton says, “or nearby landmarks that can be used to learn a route, that we tend to find an advantage for men in wayfinding.”
Women do, however, have higher levels of what Lawton calls “spatial anxiety,” which she defines as anxiety about having to find the way to an unfamiliar location or take a new route between known locations. “Spatial anxiety is higher in individuals who feel more concern for their personal safety,” Lawton says, which is more likely to be women.
Like other kinds of anxiety, spatial anxiety can lead to significant limitations for those who live with it. “Spatial anxiety may limit some women’s willingness to venture into unfamiliar environments on their own, which in turn may limit occupational and recreational opportunities. To the extent that women are made to feel less safe in the outdoor environment, I do see the restrictions that result from spatial anxiety as a social justice issue,” Lawton says.
The headlines touting the idea that men are generally better at navigation could be harmful in part because there’s also evidence to suggest that beliefs about wayfinding abilities can be self-fulfilling. “If a person is able to say they have a good sense of direction, that predicts how good their sense of direction actually is,” Hegarty says. So if you’re a woman, taking the findings that men may have superior navigation skills with a grain of salt could make a difference.
But while both Brunye and Hegarty recommend going without GPS to boost your wayfinding skills, over-reliance on navigation systems could also be a symptom of low confidence or spatial anxiety. Future research will hopefully look further into the cognitive processes behind wayfinding behaviors in order to create interventions that address the psychological roots of low performance levels.
In the meantime, if you’re someone who is often easily turned around, it’s not too late for you. It’s possible to improve on a not-so-good sense of direction, Brunye says, but it’s not like riding a bike. If you want to be able to go confidently in the direction of unfamiliar areas no matter how low your phone battery is, you’ll need to practice your wayfinding skills as often as possible. And it seems the best way to do that is the simplest: through good old-fashioned exploration.
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